Thuy Pham"It was a basic business idea, but to me it was a foreign concept."
Photography by Cris Moor
Thuy Pham made his introduction to fashion as the head designer of 90’s art project cum fashion label Bernadette Corporation, who along with brands like Imitation of Christ and Bless created an independent culture outside of the fashion system. Leaving the group in ‘98, Thuy started United Bamboo, the downtown fashion line whose deconstruction of classic american styles pioneered an approach that would become ubiquitous in fashion in the coming decade. Despite these trailblazing gestures, Thuy Pham’s approach is surprisingly reserved and simple- working towards improving his product and brand with every season.
You came to New York to go to Cooper Union, right?
Well, before that I went to Virginia Tech for engineering, but realized I wasn’t smart enough, and it was really competitive. I switched to architecture almost randomly, which was lucky, because that is how I learned about Cooper Union. Since there was no tuition at Cooper, I thought I should try to get in. We had to submit a home test and I made my portfolio out of sheets of aluminum. I did all the etchings. It looked really cool, but the shipping was $600 at the post office because it weighed 30 pounds. I didn’t have the money to mail it. On my way home I ran into a friend who was actually driving to New York that night. I gave him $50 to drop it off for me. My life has always been coincidental—I've had very lucky moments.
And then you got in.
So you went from engineering to architecture. That sounds more creative.
My father had steered me away from any kind of profession that had to do with design or art, so architecture was good for me. It's art and design, but in some ways engineering too, so my father approved.
There are a few instances of people who come from architecture and then end up in fashion.
Architecture is a great design foundation. When you start in architecture you can spring into designing other stuff. It’s probably the most all-encompassing design discipline. You understand materials, construction, structure. Maybe that’s why I think it would be harder for a fashion person to jump into architecture.
Did you graduate as an architect?
No. After I came to New York a high school friend came here to go to FIT for fashion design. I got distracted by NYC life. My friend was going to all the fun clubs with these fun people, while I was building models at Cooper Union all night. Eventually, I started hanging in clubs more than doing homework.
Is this Seth Shapiro?
Yeah. He was doing his clothes and he had a write up in Interview magazine. I thought it was awesome that you could get noticed for making clothes.
It didn’t seem that hard to you?
No. I helped him out and also another friend was making menswear. By helping these guys, I learned about making clothes.
There isn’t much information out there about Seth Shapiro.
Seth Shapiro went to my high school. Then he sort of disappeared. I ran into him in DC right as left home for NYC and we agreed to become roommates. He had fallen in love with some Christian girl who rejected him because he wasn’t Christian. Then he became very Christian himself for a brief moment. Very Christian people came up to my apartment and read the bible. Then for some reason unknown to me, he joined a Moonie cult, which took him to London. They took his passport and belongings. He sold flowers on the street and gave the money to the cult. No one could get in touch with him. After this episode, he showed up again about a year later. He told me about begging on the street. It was when he came back to New York that he started his fashion line. He’s the one that made the fashion line first, but more like an artist than a designer.
He was trying to sell fashion to the art world?
Yeah, I guess. And then Bernadette is his cousin, which is how I met Bernadette.
Was she into fashion?
At Cooper, I was really into postmodernism and so was Bernadette. It was almost required reading for the late 90's generation of architects. Bernadette was interesting because she tried to bring this postmodernism to the fashion world, approaching it like an art project. Bernadette had a strong desire to deconstruct things in a semiotic sense. With postmodernism, you deconstruct something, take something out of context. Bernadette liked to re-contextualize things about pop culture. For example, how hip hop kids use brands as signifiers, changing intended meaning. How Ralph Lauren Polo brand acts a signifier of the WASP-y image, but is popular in the inner city precisely because of that image. The deconstruction aspect was not intentional but shows how meaning can easily slip and disintegrate in different contexts.
So what was the nature of your collaboration?
Bernadette was the stylist. As the designer, I tried to help her make some clothes. Antek was a filmmaker. I’ve always been a really hands on person—I know many computer programs, I know how to sew, etc. I’m like a craftsman. I like to make stuff. Bernadette likes to produce images. Antek likes to write or talk concepts.
How many collections did you guys end up doing?
Just four collections. I would say that two of them weren’t even really collections.
How did it end?
I had a fall out with Bernadette Corp. I wanted them to be more serious about business since I had so much responsibility on the clothing side. They disagreed.
How did you meet Miho?
We got two interns when we started producing the clothes for Bernadette Corp., Siri and Miho. Later, Siri and Miho subletted my space for their own clothing brand. Their approach was so different from mine. They would put, say, $5000 in a pot and then try to make $10,000 from it. It was a basic business idea, but to me it was a foreign concept. I began to help out with the clothes and eventually gave them a brand name.
You named them United Bamboo?
Yeah. After awhile Suri wanted to do his own line but Miho and I kept doing United Bamboo.
What year was this?
This was 1997.
I looked up United Bamboo on style.com. The earliest show they had was in 2004. What did you for 7 years?
We focused on expanding our company. Eventually we decided to do fashion shows because we wanted more press. Before that we had tried to stay low-key.
What were the ideas behind United Bamboo?
With the Bernadette Corporation, the clothes were more like Alexander McQueen’s fantastical pieces & punkish anti-authority attitude. But I've always liked Comme des Garçons's architectural-ish approach to design. But I have the same problem with CdG as I have with experimental architecture, that it’s great in a vacuum, but sometimes it’s too weird in the context of real life. I also liked Ralph Lauren at that time as a business. He was basically the biggest American brand name ever. I read that he was born Ralph Lifschitz, a Jewish guy who became successful marketing this image of the northeastern upper class lifestyle. I thought it'd be easier to take something that already exists and recombine it rather than try to be original, kind of like music sampling or remixing. This is the lesson I took from postmodernism. Ralph Lauren has spent millions to cultivate a certain preppy idea. People already recognize it as a kind of 'archetype' so I can just take it and use it as a 'sample'. People understood that right away, in the same manner as recognizing a P Diddy tune. It's equally absurd for a Jewish or Vietnamese guy to make a preppy brand.
Were you guys making womenswear or menswear?
Just womenswear. All very preppy looking. Except something about it wasn't right.
Where did you sell it?
Steven Allen was one of the first people that really supported Bernadette Corporation. He carried United Bamboo and also sold our line in his showroom. We also sold to all the smaller shops in New York. It was really beneficial for us to sell in Japan. It helped that Miho is Japanese. Japan is an island nation and in their culture individualism is really discouraged. But if a Japanese person breaks out of that, they consider that to be quite an achievement, especially if he or she gets noticed in another country. We did well in the Japanese market, more so than in the US.
United Bamboo seems like a company that Americans might think comes from Japan.
Yeah, sometimes it works to your advantage, but sometimes it doesn’t.
What do you mean?
Fashion is full of contradiction. People want you to change all the time, but, at the same time, they don’t want you to change at all. They want consistency, but if you do the same thing all the time they call it boring. So the brand identity or the underlying theme must remain the same, but every season I need do something different. I don’t have a different idea each season. Instead, I have an overall brand story where I try to show the progression from season to season with how we get better as designers. The things that we design become either more intricate or more subtle.
So there is a goal of improvement instead of something new.
Exactly. Each collection is neither an endpoint nor a destination. It’s like a cut off point of where you really are at that moment.